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Joey Holland grew up in Clinton, SC, in Laurens County, as did his father and his father before him. He has two older sisters and two daughters, Elizabeth- 25, and Addye- 21. He was in the printing industry for many years until declining health forced him to sell his printing business. He says with a smile, “Now, I write.” Joey is in his second semester at Greenville Tech, and his first semester in the Honors Program. He came back to school in order to become a better writer, though now he has decided to pursue a BA in English. He will probably always write, but teaching and publishing also interest him.
Joey has an acute sense of humor; he told me the other day, with a very vexed expression on his face, and after speaking up in class many times, conversing with other classmates, and smiling and talking with others in the hall, that he hated going to “get togethers” because then he’d have to meet new people. He is quite personable and outgoing, really. He says, “I have had many interesting and funny things happen to me, and I want them to be remembered after I am gone. I first realized this when my last aunt on my mother’s side died. My mom was the youngest of twelve children, all of whom were at least a little crazy, and some were certifiable! They had thousands of wonderful stories about their misadventures, so I was saddened when Aunt Lib died, and along with her, all of those stories. My sisters and I have some of the same craziness and the stories that accompany insanity, and I want mine to be remembered.”
So far, most of his writing has been memoir-ish in nature, though after he finishes the book he’s working on now, he wants to write a novel with strong autobiographical overtones. His father was a businessman and politician who got into some trouble and went to prison when Joey was seventeen. Joey says, “Writing about the time he was in prison has been very freeing (I’m determined not to use ‘cathartic’), and I think a good book is back there, during that time.”
In the current issue of The Blue Granite Review Joey has a story entitled “Christmas of ”79.” He says it “is a story about my family’s lowest point and the ensuing rise from the ashes while my father was away. It is the first story in Desperate Fun, my first book.”
He also adds that, “The best advice I ever got was from Ira Glass, host of “This American Life” on public radio. In essence, Glass says that if you are unhappy with… Oh, hell, I will just cut and paste it:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
In Falls Park on the Fourth of July
one year, I got myself into a mess
that was strange and terrifying to my eyes.
We were watching the fireworks
my brother, my parents and I,
plus some of my brother’s friends
who came along for the time.
We were spread within sight of each other
or so it seemed, until I realized that I was alone
in an enormous crowd on a quickly darkening night
after following who I thought was my brother.
The search party, they found me, after I wandered
back up the street from where it all began
when I thought I was following my brother’s call.
Forgive me, Father.
Take me back into your arms,
Like in greenville south carolina.
Because i’ve forgotten
Where im going
And I don’t where i began
Or where i wanted to end.
You would think this would be so much easier.
But i search for approval in
All the wrong places.
I forget how hard it is
To sleep comfortably
On someone elses chest.
The rise and fall sounds like
A laboring hurricane
That knows i shouldn’t be there
And rattles angrily at the weight
Of my wishes and hopes
That lie upon it.
Tears don’t grace my cheecks anymore
They’ve become the cheap whores
Who I’ve become used to seeing
Dripping down my face
In their walks of shame.
I got tired of washing my clothes
Because i’m so snot stained and bruised on the inside
That im sick of covering it up
With cleanliness that i pray
Will somehow seep into my bones
And bleach them back to white.
So that when i open my mouth
The doctor doesn’t see
A mess of jumbled up decay and yellowing.
Nothing is pretty anymore.
Time flies by like fragile
Iridescent butterfly wings
That cut silence thickly in half.
Nothing is sacred anymore.
Truths are torn from my sinews
By vultures picking my frame clean
Contaminating me with diseases
To feed their rapacious appetites
But no thought is thrown my way.
So i’ve learned to take it all
With a grain of salt and quiet whimper.
Hold me, Father.
And please learn to begin to start accpeting me as I am.
Because those red stains are enough to drive me back,
To the habits you didn’t know I had.
Because acceptance and love,
Was all I was ever looking for.
All I was ever hoping for,
In your eyes.
So, Forgive me, Father.
Because all I want are
What any little girl believes she needs.
Approval, acceptance, love and to be whole.
So that when she sees her reflection in others eyes
She can always be reminded that she is whole.
So, Forgive me, Father.
Don’t fall in love
With the girl with stars in her eyes,
They’re nearly always tears.
Leftover hurt from
Feelings they let run rampant
And didn’t might
Leave them broken porcelain, crushed ash, and petals.
Trust me, I know.
Whatever you do,
Don’t let your fingers get tangled
In the mess of her life or
The threads of her hair.
Because when you go to pull away
You might take more color than you expected.
Don’t linger and try to fix her.
She might start to mend,
But that also means she might start to hope,
You’ll leave her shattered too.
Because what else did you think would happen to her
When she realizes,
When you realize,
You were really only in love with her heartbreak and hurt?
I’ve been there
And noone means what they say anymore
And noone wants to be the one to start back
Because they realize both truth and lies hurt.
So why change if the end result will be the same?
Darling, get a grip.
And understand that
You’re not meant to heal every heart that comes your way
Or lie with everyone that promises to heal you.
But I know, most likely than not, you will.
Or you’ll at least try,
And so, I can’t really blame you for that.
Because although the process and
Things you take into your own body to mend
Will leave you with ugly stitches and
The need to always have band aids on hand,
You’re some of the only good left in a lot of things.
I know you’re smile will shift at times
And your hands will become callused,
Even though you only use them with tenderness.
Just please don’t let your tongue create house fires
Or your feet dance through broken glass
Because I know you’re damaged,
And I know they left you, that they always do.
I also know that you have every right to destry any other
Good thing you want to.
Remember that the sun still shines, sometimes,
And if you feel lonely, talk to my closest friends, the stars.
They won’t lie to you unless you ask them and
They’ll tell you amazing stories.
If you need a kiss
Allow raindrops to run down your face
Instead of your tears.
And I know it’s hard, terribly awful, and completely unfair
That you have to be the light in this world,
But if you’re not,
You won’t only lose yourself,
But a ton of others who
Are just as afraid as you and
Very possibly, a lot more broken than you.
Don’t fall in love
With the girl with stars in her eyes.
I promise you,
They are always tears.
And you will become too obsessed with trying to fix her
That you’ll be blind to the fact that
She is supposed to give hope.
That She is supposed to give love.
And if you carelessly beat her brillant soul down,
How is her life supposed to survive?
How is she supposed to help, herself?
She shines with a light that she cannot see
because those around her are bright by mere reflection.
How can I show her what is plain as day,
that beams from her heart frighten, entrance, and embolden us?
Language fails when confronted with fact beyond words.
Some stories can only be told by life.
Her truth will wither if picked apart into phrases.
Only the breathing whole will suffice.
I can show her more of what she sees in me and
believe those qualities she exclaims, though I deny.
I will kindle my own flame to greater fire that I may say,
“This is what you are, what you have made me, and what you must be.”
Eating scuppernongs, the bluish-
Black speckled skin sour and
Tough and the seeds bitter.
They are spit out and the
Sweet jelly of the fruit swallowed.
Scuppernongs are picked
Filling the paper bag, clusters
Beneath the leaves on vines and
Ripe as the twilights of
Early autumn sprinkled with stars.
The rats squirmed their way around the fetid piles of bodies that lay piled on the ground. The bodies were the bodies of Them, understand. The bodies of Us were never just left to rot like that. Anna stepped carefully, softly, around the rats and the bodies. It wouldn’t do to touch Them, not with the diseases They carried.
“I don’t see why we can’t just burn Them,” she hissed. “They wouldn’t be lying here, freaking us out and getting in our way.”
“Quiet!” Damien warned her. “You know why we can’t burn the bodies. There’s no use in complaining about it when it won’t do us any good.”
One of the corpses appeared to move.
Damien yelped. “I wish They wouldn’t do that. I’m on edge enough as it is.”
“You know why They do that,” mocked Anna. “Do you even know what it is we’re looking for?”
Damien shook his head. “I’ll know when I see it, though.”
The piles of bodies continued for a while, stretching on into the forest.
That’s where we lost so much ground, Anna thought.
That’s where we lost all those people, Damien remembered.
Soon enough, the bodies would stop, once they reached the mouth of the Cave.
Anna’s memories of it were both terrifying and exciting. So much Power in such a small enclosure! She wished she could catch on to the Power and hold it somehow. Maybe the journey they took could make that happen. Maybe the Power in the Cave could take away the death she had experienced in the past. Maybe the Power in the Cave could make her happy again. She had great expectations for that Power. Maybe it could change everything.
Damien’s memories of the Cave were very different. He feared visiting again, but William had said that the trip was necessary to their survival. He didn’t understand, but it wasn’t his to question. William made the decisions for the group. Damien merely followed direction. The last trip to the Cave was one Damien didn’t care much to remember. Besides, the memories in the place had a way of catching hold and not letting go—as if they became something more than memories but something less than reality.
The Cave itself had memories. Many memories. If you’ve been around for that long, you start to collect thoughts. Anna, the Cave remembered, had been younger then. More afraid. She did not seem to be afraid now. She had hardened into something untouchable, something unreachably cynical and apathetic. Damien had changed much as well, but his change was different. He was not harder and more closed off, as Anna was. He was more tired and more gray. His eyes, that had been a thick black color on the first trip to the Cave, were gray now, as if tired of seeing. His hair, once brown, was changing to gray. Even his skin collected pits and ditches and turned a sickly gray. The Cave remembered all this, as it always did. Memories kept it alive!
“Hurry up, idiot,” called Anna, as loudly as she dared. “I don’t want to wait for you, and I don’t want to go in there alone.”
She peered around the lip of the Cave, into its earthy depths. Nothing frightened and yet electrified her more. Her very hair seemed on edge. The inside of the Cave smelled like dirt and wet dust and sometimes like Death. Anna knew what the smell of Death was. She lived near it every day. The smell of the Cave did not trouble her like it did Damien.
When he reached her, he was panting. She managed to walk faster and more precariously than he did every time they journeyed together. Almost as if by instinct, she avoided the bodies swiftly, while he was still deciding which foot to place and where to place it. He, too, contemplated the entrance to the Cave. To him, the Cave smelled only of Fear and Death, and the two were scents he did not comprehend or welcome. He only knew of the feelings they raised within his breast. If it were not for William, if it were not for the good of the group, Damien would turn tail and run. Run, far away from the Cave, far away from Anna, far away from the smell of Death and Fear.
But Damien straightened his back. “I’m here. I thought you weren’t waiting.”
The first corridor of the Cave was not quite so dark. It was still dark, mind, but not as dark as the later corridors. The Deep corridors. The dark of the first corridor was a night sky dark. Dark, but still blueish and a little comforting. If Damien concentrated enough on the night sky dark of the first corridor, he could imagine smelling the freshly cut grass of his lawn at home and hearing the katydids and crickets chirping and singing in the summer nights before the Incident.
Memories! The Cave lives on memories.
The deeper passages of the Cave were darker, less imaginative. Anna gritted her teeth against the chill of the Deep and steeled her backbone against the breeze. What breeze? There were no openings to the outside here. Her fists balled up tightly and flung their fingers out again. She was here for the Power. She was not afraid of the Cave and its trickery.
Maybe if they had stayed closer together, the worst wouldn’t have happened. Maybe if the dark of the Deep passages were more like the comforting night sky and less like a blankness or an absence of color, the event would not have occurred.
In the Deep dark of the last corridor, inches away from the Power and the center of the Cave, Something touched Damien. “Anna, now isn’t the time for games,” he said, frustration showing in his tone.
“You’re absolutely right,” she growled. “What are you complaining about now?”
“You touched me,” Damien whispered. Even as he said the words, a part of him knew. A heavy, cold consciousness invaded on his speech. “You touched me,” he said. “I felt it.”
Anna tensed, but her experience-trained senses kept her walking toward the center and the Power. “I didn’t touch anything.”
Damien was breathing a little harder than before. He opened his mouth to reply, but found the words just didn’t come. Why speak, when you know what is about to happen? Why argue, when you know you are wrong?
In her mind, Anna plotted routes and escapes. Maybe, if they were quick, they could get out alive. Maybe, said a Voice in her head, there is a way that They would go after Damien and take him first. No! Anna thought ferociously back at the Voice. I do not kill ones of Us just to survive. If we can’t both make it out, then we both will die. A more appropriate Death Anna could not imagine than dying at the mouth of the Power itself. If only she could just touch it before she was killed!
Damien’s mind was a chaos of fears and darkness. On the outskirts were those thoughts of his family, long since dead. Of course there were the thoughts of his purpose for being there. What would William do when they did not come back? Would he send a rescue mission? Damien knew the answer to that question. Why send a rescue team of people who were needed at the camp just to confirm what they would already know to be truth? There was no way out, Damien was certain. The months and years of experience solidified the knowledge in his mind. Once They touched you, They would have you. And They had touched him. But there was another way! Damien shoved the idea down until it was just a faint glimmer in his sea of terror and madness. But perhaps…perhaps it could work.
They continued to inch along in the darkness of the Deep, both knowing acutely what terror was about to become them. If only, if only Anna could make it to the Power before They struck.
In the last few moments, the Cave was ablaze with emotion and with movement. The Deep of the darkness turned into red spots in visions and flashes of yellow and sudden memories of oceans and lakes and rivers and streams…water everywhere. Or was the wet in fact blood?
The time elapsed was perhaps a minute, maybe two. So much had occurred in that minute, and the Cave remembered it all perfectly. The Cave lived off memories!
Her body lay reaching still for the Power. Even in Death, one’s body testifies against you.
But his body—Damien’s body—did not lie within the Cave. Would not lie within the Cave. For when he reached the mouth of the Cave for the second time that day, the second time that hour (had all the madness that transpired really taken place within the limits of an hour?), he stepped swiftly outside and did not look back. The memories left inside could stay with the Cave; he had no need for them out here in the bright sunlight. How good it was to be living! Even in daylight he did not regret a thing. Instead, he thanked Anna, thanked his family for saving him. How sacrificial they were, even as they did not intend to be! The sunlight tasted warm on his cheek and on his lips. How good it was to be alive! He was grateful indeed.
They did not take Anna back to Their den, as usually They did. She was not a fresh kill, nor was she even Their kill. The idea of bringing back a Found Us instead of a Killed Us was inconceivable. So They left her, reaching for the Power, presumably for others of Us to find her later, when our Williams decide that, for the good of our groups, the Power must be acquired.
For, of course, the Cave will still be there, even years from now, as it has always Been. And assuredly, They will be there, too, though there isn’t need to fear Them as much as Us.
But how good it is to be alive!
I have a box that sits on my dresser. It’s small, maybe six inches long and four inches wide, and it’s made entirely of dark-stained wood. That is, except for the hinges. I don’t keep anything in it right now, but that’s only because it’s my preference, not because it isn’t big enough to hold anything. If my daddy were reading this over my shoulder, he’d say, “June-bug, ain’t nobody gonna know what that word means!” But that’s just because he didn’t have Ms. Casey as a seventh grade teacher last year. She taught us big words, like “preference” and “dejection” and “malady”.
Once I put my favorite poem inside the box. It’s the one about hope having feathers or wings or something, by that author who stayed inside all the time. I like it best because of her story. One time my friend Janey told me that if the author was really a brave person, she would have left her house and met people and had a family. I guess that takes bravery, too, having a family; but I think she was just as brave to stay inside and be herself. Sometimes being yourself is equally as scary as facing the world around you. I asked my mom what she thought, if she figured that the author had been just as brave to be herself, and mom said I was right, and hugged me. I’m not really sure why she did that, but I hugged her back.
Another time, I kept my mom’s favorite perfume in the box. She was going on a trip, and I was going to miss her. She’d never been on a trip before, so I didn’t really have experience of missing her, but I just knew I would. After she got back from her trip, I gave her the perfume back, since it’s her favorite. It’s called “Wildflowers”, and it smells like the outdoors. It isn’t my favorite; I like the one she wears on special occasions best, but whenever I smell it, I think of my mom. After we read that author lady’s poems, I told my mom that she reminded me of the author, the way she always admired the outdoors. Mom was really tickled about that, although I’m not sure why.
One time, I kept a dead June bug in the box. I liked all the greens, and the iridescence of its shell. (“Iridescence” is another word Ms. Casey taught me. I like to use it all the time.) Whenever I got the chance, I would lift up the lid on my box and look at the June bug. Sometimes I would lose track of time, staring at the shell and letting my eyes create swirls and waves of pattern. That’s why my daddy calls me “June-bug”, because I kept that June bug in my box for almost a whole year. Janey said I wasted a lot of time staring at “That Thing”, but I never could get her to look at it. She’d just squeal and say, “Eeeeeew! I hate bugs! Don’t get That Thing near me!” I bet if she had looked for just a minute she would have understood. Mom told me not to count on it, though. She said not everyone sees things the way I do. I’m not sure I understand what she meant.
The last thing I had in my box was a rose petal from my mom’s funeral. I’m still not sure why we had roses. She always said she liked daffodils best. It seems like we should have had her favorite things there, instead. All the same, I saved one petal to put in my box. I tried to stare at it, like I did the June bug, but it didn’t work the same way. Sometimes my vision would get blurry and tears would fall on the petal, and on my box. But I wasn’t crying, because I don’t cry. I told my daddy about how the petal didn’t work, how it didn’t swirl and create patterns like the June bug did, but he didn’t explain why. Maybe it’s too much science for him. My daddy doesn’t like science. Instead, he just hugged me and said that he loved me. I’m still not really sure why he did that. All I wanted to know was why the petal didn’t make patterns in its colors like the June bug.
Now all I keep inside the box is silence. Since the funeral, my house has been really quiet. I guess when Mom died, she took all the noise with her. That time she left on a trip, the same thing happened. Even my daddy, who used to clomp around the house in his big work boots, tip toes and whispers. I asked him why everything was so quiet, why the sound left, and he told me that we were going to move. I don’t really understand how that relates to silence. I guess when we move, I’ll take my box with me, holding all its silence. I’ll put it on the dresser in my new room. That way, even though the house won’t be the same, because Mom never lived here, the box will. And, if I keep the box shut most of the time, and only open it on holidays and my birthday, and Mom’s birthday, too; maybe when I open it, the silence will sound like our house, instead of this new house. I told my daddy this, and he just said he doesn’t understand me sometimes. I said I know, but Mom would have understood.
The holidays were especially interesting during the time Dad was in prison. This particular Christmas marked the halfway point of his incarceration, but at the time, none of us were sure he would live to finish his sentence. We didn’t know we had hit the worst times; we thought the trend would follow and things would continue to get worse. It seems to have been here, in the throes of yuletide that we began our way out.
The family was gearing up for the best Christmas ever. Dad was in prison and the rest of us: Mom, Cindy, Nan and I were all in different stages of crippling addiction. Friends of my father convinced Mom to sell the house on the hill and downsize into Grandmas’ little house, and we’d lost the Christmas decorations in the move, so we substituted. Dirty dishes, empty beer cans and other quaint décor of the season was strewn, er, that is to say, strung merrily through the house. Yep, the yuletide spirit was in the air!
I don’t remember how the forlorn little tree came to be in the foyer, but I do remember it sitting a long time, stark and silent, like the lone survivor of a prairie fire. Having the orphaned tree standing, mutely begging for at least a scrap of tinsel, became unbearable, so Nan, Cindy and I tried to motivate Mom into revealing to us where the tree decorations were. It wasn’t that Mom was a procrastinator; it was more that talking, for her, involved cessation of the constant gobbling of Placidils; those little green drops of heaven prevalent in those days. Actually, that isn’t quite right either. Mom could talk while buzzed on the placidils, she just couldn’t be understood.
“Hey Mama! Where’s the Christmas tree decorations? MAMA!! HEY!”
“What?” she hissed indignantly.
“Where is that big box of Christmas tree stuff?”
“I jusss wuz thribbling frosh…. Frosh strifflier bffff ppppplllll! Ah, fuck!”
It was getting pretty close to Christmas when we found the box, containing a hopelessly tangled ball of multi-colored lights about the size of a basketball and a gnarled assortment of broken ornaments. Cindy and I sat on the floor by the tree and tried to somehow produce enough wherewithal to get started.
“What’s the fucking point? Just set the bastard on fire and call it done!” I said. Pretending to be festive was wearing on my heart.
“This Christmas is fucked, Cindy, and you know it! Mama and Nan don’t care! You don’t care! Hell, why even do it?”
Cindy looked at me with disdain which slowly softened into something tenderer. “Hey, go look in the cold room, under the bed,” She said.
I dashed into the dark little unheated room and found two sixteen ounce Budweisers, laying there like found hope. I grabbed them, and with a lighter step, returned to the task.
“EEEWWWW!! You got the expensive stuff! I mistook you for an ice cold Falstaff girl!” I chided.
“Well, it IS the holiday season! You’re welcome, you little bastard,” She sat back down among the white trash trappings and we both glanced around, taking stock of the place life had brought us. After a couple of long pulls, Cindy said, “I got a 12 pack in the bottom of the closet in there. Don’t let Mama see you. Help yourself. Merry Christmas, you miserable little fuck.”
Cindy started trying to untangle the lights while I got us a refill, but by the time I got back she had already given up. I picked up the task and began half- heartedly picking at the unruly mess. Cindy started to say something, but her voice cracked. Glancing up from my task, I saw Cindy’s resolve melt as her shoulders fell.
“Shit! Put that down for a minute. I can’t watch you do that right now,” She said, her voice trembling like she was already nursing the hangover which was still to come. The weight of our family’s fall from grace was pushing her into an emotional quagmire. I just sat there, mutely, among the pathetic array of decorations as she struggled to regain her disguise of apathy. A tear perched on the edge of her eyelid, but the second it began rolling down her cheek, I saw the steel return to her eyes.
“I remember the first Christmas after you were born.” She began, a little wistfully. “I was four. You looked like a little monkey! Nan was two and she looked like a little China doll. Y’all were sweet babies. Mama had gotten us little Christmas outfits. You’ve seen those pictures. That was the first year we strung popcorn to put on the tree. I remember the house smelling like cedar and popcorn. At that time, Mama had never drunk alcohol. She didn’t start until a year or so later when Dad finally convinced her to have a little wine. Boy, he fucked up!” Something dark and scary, like a moray eel, passed just under the surface of her eyes. “Anyway, I remember that being a great Christmas. I guess that one was my favorite ever.”
I couldn’t help staring at Cindy. She was the stoic one and never sentimental like this! I realized for the first time that she was barely holding herself together! We were all slowly falling apart, but Cindy always seemed so much tougher than Mama, Nan or me.
I looked into the cold room for a minute, thinking of all that was lost before saying, “I guess my favorite was when Uncle Phil brought all those Chinese fireworks. Nan and I got roller skates. I guess I was nine. We stayed outside all day Christmas roller skating and shooting off fireworks. Uncle Phil was all pilled up and those little bottle rockets kept popping in his hand, but he would just laugh! Remember? He had to go to the hospital! He was so high! He gave Mama that Janis Joplin album she loved so much. Mama was still ok then. Dad bought her that Dodge Dart for Christmas. Remember how pretty she looked that year? She seemed so damn happy!”
We sat there another minute or two, trying to figure out what to do with the decorations. I broke the knot of silence between us. “You know, I really never thought things could get this fucked up! I felt so… safe, I guess, back then. Everything is falling apart and it’s really freaking me out!” I lowered my eyes, ashamed to have finally stated the obvious. I halfheartedly kicked at the ball of lights, sick of what they represented.
I looked over and saw that Cindy again had tears on her cheeks. Her expression hadn’t changed, but her face was wet with tears. She sat there a minute before snatching the ball of lights off the floor and pushing them into the side of the tree.
“Hand me that extension cord!” She said. I was greatly relieved to hear the control back in her voice. The big ball of lights cast a strange and menacing glow in the foyer as she sat back down, her countenance again that of the tough Cindy, the one who never cried.
“I love you, Joey, so I’m gonna tell you something. It might sound harsh, but you need to hear it. Are you listening?”
I nodded mutely.
“Those days are over! Forever! We can’t ever, ever go back to that kind of naivety. You need to realize that if you don’t already know it. You need to embrace it! It’s gonna kill Mama! It might kill Nan! It’s not gonna kill me! Life is hard! Life is unfair! Get used to it and grow the fuck up!”
She rooted around in the rubble in the bottom of the decoration box before finding the bottom half of an angel decoration. She jammed it onto the top of the little tree and spread her arms, like Jesus.
“There! Our homage to Santa is done!” As she stormed out the front door, she whirled, saying, “Oh, yeah” and tossed me a little waxed paper bag of heroin, “Merry Christmas.” And then she was gone.
Oh well, traditions come and traditions go. Stringing popcorn was passé and violent tree trimming, followed by intravenous drug use, was trending. Que sera.
The following morning broke sullen and melancholy upon our bleak Christmas Eve. The cloud ceiling was low, as was my mood. Eddie, Cindy’s addict/dealer boyfriend, had been unable to find any dope that morning so they were beginning to unravel. I wasn’t physically addicted so I was simply emotionally disheveled. I didn’t see much point in celebrating. Nan was buzzing on her recipe for tolerance of life, Quaaludes, but I was too listless to try to try to talk her out of any. Eddie was gone to Greenville searching for the heroin that would enable Cindy and him to engage in holiday festivities. The whole thing seemed staged, like we were pretending for somebody’s benefit, but we all knew what was going on; we were circling the drain. Mom was aboard her drinking chair in the den, overseeing the whole mess.
“Shouldn’t we hang the stockings, Cindy? CINDY!! Did you find the stockings?”
“Mama, I can’t think about any fucking stockings right now. Ronnie is on the way over here and I gotta be ready. We’ll do the stockings later. Or get Joey! He’s not doing anything!”
“Id love to oblige, but I’m headed to the store! I’m gonna lose my mind if I don’t get a couple beers in me. I’ll find ‘em when I get back!” I smoothly replied. “Surely all these glad tidings can wait.”
I had $3.14 burning a hole in my pocket and I needed to get to the PLEZ U immediately, if not sooner.
Upon my arrival home, I noticed Cindy was gone, as was Eddie, leaving Mom and Nan to bicker about who was going to decorate the mantle. Mom had drunk just enough to begin her relentless teasing. She used taunting as a defense against the wolves snarling just outside her door. I was relieved to find Mama had focused on Nan. “Please put on this Santa hat! Joey can take some pictures and it’ll be so sweet! Please!! Here, Joey, help Nan put on the hat.” She tossed me what looked like an old fashioned night cap, not Christmassy at all. Nan was about five fourths stewed on those damn Quaaludes, so wearing the cap might prove entertaining. I joined in.
“Here, Nan. Put it on! There’s another one in that big box. I’ll get it in a minute and wear it. Mama can wear that sombrero in the back bedroom. It’ll be fun!” I jammed it down on Nan’s head energetically, the way Cindy had jammed the angel on the tree. She started to pull it off, but then started gagging. She coughed and gagged for another minute and, by the time she had pulled herself somewhat together, she’d forgotten she had the nightcap on, so she wore it until she passed out about an hour later. It was fantastic! Mom tried to opt out of wearing the sombrero, but when I threatened to search her pocketbook for nerve pills, she relented. She could have called my bluff; I wouldn’t have really taken her current means for survival; she needed her Valium the way I needed my alcohol and Nan needed her Quaaludes. I just wanted her to believe I was stronger than I was, even if it meant I threatened her. Down deep, she would see my strength as a good thing; I could better defend her against the specters of the future. Anyway, Mom wore the sombrero and I wore the ball cap I already had on.
‘Joey, help me hang the holly.” Mama said as she tried to reach the top of the door frame to hang what looked like a termite infested pine cone. My heart settled deeper into my chest.
“I’ve got it, Mama.” Nan said, tossing the cone away and hanging the holly. We didn’t have enough Christmas stockings for everybody, so we hung a pair of panty hose for Eddie. I was determined not to break down as we fought for sanity by pretending to be festive. ‘If you can’t embrace it, scoff at it.’ Quickly became the day’s mantra.
After we hung three filthy Christmas stockings, we put about four packs of icicles all over the mantle and added some old Happy Meal toys. It was beautiful! It was Christmas!
I think Nan had the right idea about a late morning siesta so after she had bedded down on the living room floor, I also took a nice, long, floor nap. Mama actually went to bed for her nap. When I woke up, the short day was about done. I realized right away Cindy had returned because I heard her screaming at Ronnie Quint. After staggering into the den to join the conversation, I began to understand what had gotten Cindy so upset. “What was that shit, you motherfucker?” She screamed into Ronnie’s face. She was shivering like a dog shitting razor blades!
“This isn’t heroin! What was it!! WHAT WAS IT! Oh God! I’m dying!”
“Cindy, calm down! It WAS heroin, or at least it had heroin in it! It’s MDA! Alls that’s gonna happen is you’ll strobe a little bit. The heroin’ll help your jones!
“Ronnie, I swear to God I’m gonna kill you as soon as I am able. You aren’t living this down. I’m taking your worthless life the minute this shit wears off! I need a drink!”
I calmed Cindy by offering to take Ronnie to the liquor store. I felt like a little clearing of the air, and the palette, was in order
We rode home in the last vestiges of the sunlight, the tarnished gold sky achingly beautiful, with pewter colored clouds shot through with burnished silver. The effect of this breathtaking sunset on my badly tarnished soul was almost too much to take. Natural beauty colliding with the ugly inside me produced some sort of odd reaction, a swoon almost. I just couldn’t reconcile that lovely display of God’s talent with what was going on inside me. I searched for the proper response to the deep red sky and found only hollow want inside me. Realizations like this can only be followed by more drug abuse. The only way to soften this collision with nature was to soften my view of it, so on I went.
Cindy was sitting on the porch with Nan; both of them bundled in blankets. Nan seemed much better. I found out later she had been giving Mom some payback, decorating her like a Christmas present, albeit an inebriated one. Cindy, however, seemed even more agitated. She glared at Ronnie as she said to me, “Give me that shit!” She spun the top off the Southern Comfort and took a pull that would have made Janis Joplin proud. She looked more angelic with each slug.
Ronnie, the worst judge of emotional climate I’ve ever met, said, “Now maybe you’ll cut me a little slack… bitch.” The last muttered under his breath, though not quietly enough. Right before my eyes, Cindy metamorphosed from an angel to a banshee, screaming, “I’ll cut your fuckin’ head off, you cocksucker!” She threw the bottle at him, much to my dismay, hitting him directly in the chest. I grabbed Cindy before she could reach Ronnie, who had fallen on the front steps clutching his midsection.
“You ought to leave, Ronnie.” I said as I retrieved the liquor, which still had a good four fingers in it.
“Get out of here, Man! Eddie’s gonna be back soon and you do not want to see him after he sees Cindy! Look at her!”
That huge drink had done something to her, something scary! She was sitting beside one of the azaleas in the front yard, talking to it like it was our friend David Greene, whom she hadn’t seen in months. She even had her arm around it like it was her buddy.
“David, I need to shploth for the snizzbth.” She was becoming incoherent, and fast! This probably should have frightened me worse than it did, but it seems brushes with death or incurable brain damage were taken philosophically, as if we had signed up for the eventuality, so, of course, I sought the lighter side of psychosis.
“Goddamn, Cindy, Eddie’ll be jealous of that bush. Look, Nan, Cindy loves that bush!”
Nan joined in. “Cindy, azaleas can’t cop dope like people can. You better find you a person to love.” It was getting pretty cold out, so we took Cindy inside, swaddled in a blanket, leaving Ronnie outside, still clutching his midsection.
Late Christmas Eve
Eddie made it home about an hour later, and by then Cindy had fallen into a fitful snooze.
“Don’t wake her up, Man. She’s had a tough couple of hours.” I warned.
“Hell, I don’t have any reason to wake her up. All the dope in the world has dried up and blowed away. I’m sicker’n hell, Man! I’m goin’ to bed. Merry fuckin’ Christmas!” Eddie shuffled slowly into the middle bedroom where Cindy was sleeping, closing the door behind him.
When we moved into my grandmother’s house the previous summer, I took Dad’s old bedroom, the small one in the back of the house. I usually slept on the couch, but since it was Christmas and Santa was due, I collapsed on my bed. Before I fell asleep, I heard Cindy and Eddie quietly talking, Cindy snuffling softly. I think she was crying and I didn’t blame her one bit. They were just going to have to ride it out and hope for a Christmas miracle.
That night I dreamed everybody was disintegrating right before my eyes. I was the only one of the family who remained intact and vital. Dad kept saying, rather gruffly, “What are you looking at, Son?” as the whole family sort of blew away; it was as if they were drying out like the dope to which Eddie had referred, but they didn’t seem to notice. Finally, they were all gone and I stood there in tumbleweed desolation. I awoke and sat on the side of the bed, thinking. Remembering. Thinking about the old man, Joe S. Holland, ward of the South Carolina Department of Corrections. He’d been a state congressman until right before his incarceration. Things rapidly fell apart afterward.
It felt wrong, but I was so very thankful Nan had agreed to go with Mama to visit Dad that morning. I had been there last Christmas, we all had, and it was almost unbearable. Dad cried almost the whole time. We gathered around him, hugging him and telling him it would be all right until he slowly gained some composure only to again fall apart upon remembering where he was and what had happened. Spending Christmas with a couple of sick junkies was the better alternative.
I awoke Christmas morning to the sounds of Mama and Nan leaving for Columbia to see Dad. I remembered it was Christmas and tried to garner some Christian gratitude, but my self pity wouldn’t allow it. I walked into the front room and said to no one in particular, “Merry Christmas!” Nan responded, “Are you trying to be a smart ass?”
“Sorry. Tell the old man I love him and me and Cindy’ll see him next week. Tell him Merry Christmas for me, without the irony.”
“You better remember this, Joey! Even though Dad told us to stay home, he would be crushed if Mama didn’t come and she can’t go by herself! You’re welcome!” Nan was good that way. She liked people to accurately chronicle the things she did for them. “Cindy can’t go.” Nan continued. “Did you hear them this morning? I think they’re down for the count unless somebody brings them some dope.” Mama came in saying, “We better go, Sweetheart. The quicker we go the quicker we can get back.” “Merry Christmas, Mama!” I tried again.
“Fuck you, Joey! Leave Mama alone!” Nan warned.
“Nancy Ann!” Mama said. “Merry Christmas, Baby! I love you.” And she did. I was my mother’s favorite and everybody knew it. Nan checked to make sure they had everything they needed. Picnic basket with hamburgers and fixings, change for Cokes and two joints; one for the ride there, one for the ride home. Mama had her prescription of Valium. We heard Cindy and Eddie beginning to stir, so Mama and Nan headed out.
Cindy came vibrating into the room, snot running out of her nose. She looked like 40 miles of bad road.
“Merry Christmas!” I began, trying to find a ray of hopeful, yellow sunshine, but was extingusished by, “Fuck you Joey! Don’t start that shit!” I could hear Eddie moaning in the middle bedroom. Something that had been really itching at me surfaced, a ghost of an idea that now seemed ready to solidify and maybe to redeem. I still had my bag of heroin. I had been saving it for Christmas day. Even though I was trying to make light of the bleakness of this Christmas, I really was hoping for some sort of… redemption. As much as I hated it, I knew what I had to do if I wanted any shot at a holiday miracle.
“Guess what I got?” I asked Cindy.
“Yeah, I know what you got! A fucked up sense of humor and a holier-than-thou attitude, that’s what you got.”
“I also got that bag of dope you gave me for Christmas. Y’all can have it. I know it won’t quite do the trick, but hopefully it’ll be enough to get Eddie up and on his way to Greenville. Eighty mile round trip, he can be back in three hours.”
The words tumbled out and fell on the floor between us, unexpected and miraculous in their conception and promise. Cindy’s attention immediately turned to Eddie.
“Thank you, Honey! Give it to me! EDDIE! Joey gave us a bag to split! Get your flabby white ass in here!” They met in the kitchen and immediately began screaming at one another. “I’m going first!”
“No you’re not, goddammit!”
“HEY! Split the shit even!”
“Just sit down! Shit, I’m the one that’s gotta ride all the way to Greenville with fuckin’ Ronnie.” Mama and Nan had taken our car.
“OK, but hurry, Eddie, OK?” Cindy implored, as I walked outside for a little quiet.
I wasn’t outside ten minutes before Ronnie came pulling up in his old truck. I considered the faith the intrepid dopers had to have just to entertain the notion that Ronnie’s piece of shit truck would even make it to Greenville, much less take them on a dope hunt and return them unscathed.
“They here?” Ronnie asked.
“Yeah, they’re too sick to go anywhere. Well, except to Gvegas for essentials.” I responded. Evidently the now happier couple had heard Ronnie pull up because Eddie quickly came out, obviously in a hurry. “Don’t get out, Ronnie! Let’s go!” They pulled out, leaving a pall around the house.
“Merry Christmas!” Cindy sang as I came through the door.
“Fuck you, Cindy!” I retorted, but mostly for effect. I was glad she felt better. I was happier still that she looked better. Her eyes were clearer and, while her skin was still kind of gray, it was a more pleasant shade. After trying to be pleased about it being Christmas for a half hour or so, we were exhausted. Even though we’d only been out of bed for about an hour and a half, we decided on a nap.
When I woke up, it was close to two o’clock. Mama and Nan were due back in about an hour, maybe a little longer. Eddie was still gone and Cindy was still asleep. I doubt she had gotten much the night before. My family’s cosmic position began finally to sink in and I realized how close we were to… disintegrating or something. My dream of the night before returned to me in a way that forced me to look at things frankly. The drugs couldn’t always keep the despair at bay. In fact, they seemed to be magnifying it. I was completely bewildered, and, with the despair and bewilderment echoing in the empty chamber of my soul, the hopelessness was palpable. I couldn’t find the guts even to get out of bed for a few minutes, especially when I didn’t know what to do once I was vertical, but I couldn’t just lie there, not on Christmas day. I decided to try to clean the house a little. I washed the dishes, swept and mopped and then rearranged the mantle to make it look a little less desperate. I left the tree alone. It seemed an icon, a representation of how this Christmas felt. I opened the front door to air some of the despair out of the house, hoping to transform our little patch of hell into a place to enjoy Christmas night.
Mama and Nan arrived home around three, about ten minutes before Eddie, who came in without his usual ‘I got some dope’ swagger. “Wadn’t nothing goin on in Greenville. All I got is a few Percs. Let’s get high.” We never actually shot the dope in front of Mama; it was just understood that if she didn’t want to see it, she should stay out of the kitchen when we were in there conferring. Oxycodone, the ‘magic’ in Percodan, wasn’t heroin, but it would ward off the worst of their symptoms, and would positively change my world. I could only talk Eddie out of two Percodan but they beat a snowball, in the way a sno-cone beats a snowball.
After Eddie, Cindy and I finished “conferring” in the kitchen, things were much better. Nan was heeled with her ubiquitous Quaaludes and Mama had good news about Dad. “He was so much better! He got good news from the Social Security people. We also found out he’s moving to Spartanburg Pre-Release at the end of February. Bill McCrary works there!” Bill was one of Dad’s oldest friends. Dad had helped Bill beat about five DUIs during his time in the House of Representatives. “Your father really seems to have turned a corner. He might live through this thing after all… Who cleaned the house?” Mama asked the nodding crowd. Cindy smirked, “Nobody cleaned the house. Joey picked up and swept some. Nobody’s actually cleaned this house since we’ve been here.”
“You’re welcome, fuck face!” I said.
“It looks good, Joey! And thank you, Sweetie!” Cindy returned, cloyingly.
“No, thank YOU for the patronizing… Bitch!” I countered.
“Y’all don’t fuss. Things really are looking up.” Nan said.
“What smells so good, Cindy?”
Cindy came in from the kitchen. “We had a Hostess ham in there! I put it on. Anybody know where it came from?” Nobody did. Eula Mae was the family bootlegger. Many times, when I went by there on Sunday for a few half pints of ‘Bourbon de Luxe’, Eula sent home tomatoes or beans or maybe some homemade jam. She had probably given it to Mama, but I didn’t remember seeing it.
“Joey, will you come help me? Hell, let’s all go in the kitchen.” Our family, before the worm had turned, had always congregated in the kitchen. All of Mama’s family reunion pictures were taken in the kitchens of different relatives who’d hosted the festivities.
We all went into the kitchen, probably for the first time since we had been living in Grand mama’s house. Some of us had been in there to shoot dope or maybe to throw a quick meal together, but this was the first time we had all come in there to make a family dinner. All the women in my family were good cooks, but Cindy was the best leader, so she took command. “Joey, grab those sweet potatoes off the porch and put them in the oven. It’s already on. Be careful, the ham’s in there. You have to wash the potatoes first! Are you an idiot?”
“Mama, will you put some pintos on? There’s fatback in the fridge.”
It began to dawn on me that we were all thinking about something other than our problems. We weren’t marinating in self-pity. We hadn’t really questioned where the mystery ham had come from. We were just enjoying Christmas, cooking together and talking of past holidays. Something inexplicable had happened. Nan said, “Remember that Christmas we got the skates and Uncle Phil was so fucked up, Joey?”
“Me and Cindy were just talking about that one! Yeah, that was a good one for sure.” How about you, Mama? Do you remember your favorite?” Mama thought a minute before saying, “I loved every Christmas with my children. I hope you will all one day know what it’s like to have children. Ya’ll have been a gift to me every day, not just Christmas days. I love ya’ll so much!” This last said with tears in her eyes.
Mama’s genuine expression of love melted any hard feelings any of us had had concerning our new station in life. My mother was and is the sweetest person I have ever met. She… changed us that evening in that little kitchen in that little house. Forget that we were all pretty high, either from the dope or the holiday beers, or both. Forget that we still had a thousand things to do before we could say we had made it through this particular storm, forget all the woes that lay ahead and behind. We were still a family; one that cooked together in the kitchen.
On Christmas day, 1979, my family courageously looked into the abyss… and grinned.